STW Sundays #7: Elizabeth John, on Communicating Wildlife Crimes

Save-The-World Sundays is a series of interviews conducted with remarkable individuals who are engaged in environmental initiatives and movements. This Sunday, we feature Elizabeth John, Senior Communications Officer of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, a former award-winning environmental journalist who now directs TRAFFIC’s plans and programmes to reach out of the region’s millions about wildlife trade and the crises caused by poaching and trafficking.

TRAFFIC is a wildlife trade monitoring network that works to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature. Established in 1976, TRAFFIC was set up as a specialist group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. It is governed by a Committee whose members are appointed by WWF and IUCN. TRAFFIC’s core competencies lie in research, analysis, proposing solutions, advocacy and action, as well as supporting remedial action.

TRAFFIC employs over 100 people across 30 countries. TRAFFIC Southeast Asia was established in 1991, with its office based in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

TRAFFIC's Worldwide Network (source: TRAFFIC)

TRAFFIC’s Worldwide Network (source: TRAFFIC)

Elizabeth shapes the public voice and messaging on TRAFFIC’s work, wildlife issues in the region and efforts to change attitudes and behaviour towards wildlife use. She drives and manages TRAFFIC’s engagement with the public, corporations, and the local and international media. She tells us a little more about her work with TRAFFIC:

What is your Save-the-world project?

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It’s a bit of a never-ending struggle this one – creating a public voice for wildlife strong enough to propel change. Wildlife trafficking and poaching are age old problems that haven’t really abated despite all the effort put into raising awareness and changing attitudes. NGOs have been nagging governments for years and I’m sure they’re all fed up. They need to hear from the people. For wildlife to have hope and a future people have to change and there must be a genuine demand from the ground up for enforcement against wildlife crime and better protection for a country’s natural heritage. Building that voice and turning up its volume, is my daily save-the-world project.

What inspired you to work in your field?

Hmmm…I’m afraid this is something I’ve never stopped to think about. TRAFFIC needed someone to help with communications work and so I thought I’d give it a try. That was four years ago.

Can you describe some of your work?

An average day involves monitoring the news, responding to media or taking interviews, writing and editing articles, updating social media, liaising with the public, government and corporations, planning outreach and exhibitions, designing new awareness material and tools, and occasionally scrambling to cover a wildlife seizure or court decision.

More interesting days involve going down to the ground with media in the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex, Perak or in one of Vietnam’s national parks; talking to folks in a crowded auditorium in ultra urban Singapore or in a pasar malam in Gerik; snap-and-run photography at a wildlife market in Jogjakarta; or being part of a training course in a wooden schoolroom in the highlands of Lao PDR or in the heart of bustling Bangkok.

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(An interview at LiteFM where Elizabeth shows how smugglers transport stolen wildlife illegally)

What difficulties did you face while working on the project?

Miniscule budgets, always having to find new ways to talk about age old problems, trying to convince government agencies that we’re not the enemy.

What is rewarding about your work, or what drives you to do what you do?

What drives me? Anger probably. What motivates me? Glimpses of change and really supportive colleagues.

What are the lessons that you have learnt from working in your field?

Persistence is critical to making any effort work. It takes a lot of work to get decision makers and opinion leaders to see things your way because lets face it, international wildlife trade isn’t an easy subject. Complying with conventions and regulations, setting quotas to ensure harvest of wildlife doesn’t harm wild populations, ensuring effective enforcement, successfully prosecuting wildlife crime, managing seized wildlife – all call for difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions.

Getting people to care is easy, getting them to change is the real challenge. People are generally moved by sad photos or stories of how the illegal trade orphans wildlife and the cruel and unsustainable manner in which much of the illegal trade occures but may not necessarily want to deny themselves that new snakeskin handbag or decline a bowl of shak fin soup.

Wildlife conservation isn’t at all a priority, we have a long way to go and a lot more work to do before it is. It doesn’t get the funding it deserves and is hardly a blip in the national agenda. Not all, but many, still love their wild meat which may have come from a poached animal; don’t care that their exotic pet might be illegal and continue to consume medicines made from trafficking species while there are perfectly good herbal alternatives….long way to go.

Elizabeth John

Would you be willing to talk to (and share resources possibly with) people who are interested to start a journey similar to yours?

Sure.

Any advice that you would like to give to someone else who wants to make a difference?

Don’t be afraid to try.

See more information on TRAFFIC Southeast Asia here. The TRAFFIC website also has a wealth of information in the form of PDFs that you can download and read.

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